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Papuan distrust poses big challenge to Indonesian military

People in the restive region are wary of a new softly-softly approach after years of violence meted out by security forces

UCA News reporter, Jakarta

UCA News reporter, Jakarta

Published: January 13, 2022 03:28 AM GMT

Updated: January 13, 2022 03:59 AM GMT

Papuan distrust poses big challenge to Indonesian military

Civilians take refuge at Bilogai Catholic Church in Papua's Intan Jaya district on Oct. 29 amid fighting between Indonesian security forces and rebel groups. (Photo supplied)

One day in 1969, not long after it was decided Papua was to become part of Indonesia, Yones Douw's family were forced to flee from security forces.

It happened after his uncle, Mika Kayame, was shot dead in Paniai by Indonesian security forces, who accused the teacher of spying for the Netherlands following a referendum called the Act of Free Choice that saw 1,025 men and women vote unanimously for Indonesian control in Papua.

“My uncle's body was dumped into a ravine in Totouda, Paniai. My father was with him at the time. Since my father was carrying a Bible, he was allowed to go, but the military told him that he would be picked up in the afternoon,” he told UCA News.

Because his now 82-year-old father, a Protestant pastor, knew he could suffer the same fate, he and his family fled.

The one-year-old Douw and his five-month old sister with their parents crossed Paniai Lake to reach their parents’ home village in Dogiyai district.

The experience and subsequent violence have spurred him to fight for the rights of Papuans. "Since childhood, we have lived under the military. The situation is not improving but worsening," he said.

Under the Nemangkawi approach, 67,000 Papuans were displaced. How many more will become victims of this new policy?

Indonesian military operations in Papua began in 1961 when the region was still under Dutch control and continue to this day amid ongoing resistance from separatists such as the West Papua Liberation National Army.

Youw is pessimistic about a new military and police plan to change tactics in their struggle against the rebels from a hard, confrontational “Nemangkawi” approach adopted in 2018 to softer, more peaceful means.

National police spokesman Dedi Prasetyo said recently that security forces "will use a soft approach [towards civilians] more" but will remain tough towards rebel groups.

He said the troops were currently being prepared for the new role in Jakarta before being deployed to remote Papuan areas to show local people how to grow crops and raise livestock and educate children.

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As part of the plan, 3,000 Papuans will be recruited into the police and army this year.

For Douw and other activists and observers, instead of making Papua a better place, this policy will change nothing as the essence is the same — more troops in Papua.

"Under the Nemangkawi approach, 67,000 Papuans were displaced. How many more will become victims of this new policy?" he asked.

According to a report from Solidarity of the Papuan People Against State Violence, around 307 people, mostly civilians, have been killed since the Nemangkawi plan was enforced in 2018.

Father Bernard Baru, chairman of the Justice and Peace Commission of the Augustinian Order in Papua, said military involvement in civilian affairs was counterproductive as years of violence suffered by Papuans at its hands had left them afraid and traumatized.

He is concerned about the military being involved in civil matters such as teaching. "I'm worried they will brainwash children rather than give them knowledge."

Father John Bunay, coordinator of the Papua Peace Network, agreed.

"Why are civil matters such as teaching and raising livestock not left to more competent people? The duty of the army and police is to maintain security. Doesn't being a teacher, for example, need properly trained teachers?" he asked.

Made Supriatma, a research fellow at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies in Singapore who specializes in Indonesian security and military issues, said this new policy looks like an attempt to set Papuans against themselves.

"Papuans loyal to Indonesia will be set against the Free Papua Organization and anti-Indonesian indigenous Papuans," he told UCA News, alluding to the recruitment of indigenous Papuans to become police and soldiers.

Those they call separatists or rebels are people who have a legitimate right to express opinions and disapproval of Indonesia

Father Baru said the failure of many previous military operations should be sufficient reason to look for other solutions.

"For us, the clear solution is by opening dialogue and treating people as dignified human beings," he said.

Touching on concerns often voiced that dialogue could lead Papua to secede from Indonesia, he said, "first we will solve problems that make Papuans want to separate."

Supriatma said the Papua problem is a political one that must be resolved through negotiations.

“Those they call separatists or rebels are people who have a legitimate right to express opinions and disapproval of Indonesia," he said.

"So, [one solution is] negotiations by recognizing the separatist Papuan organizations and Papuan resistance organizations as partners in negotiations." 

Supriatma, a Catholic, said religious institutions such as the Catholic Church are expected to play a bigger role in finding a peaceful solution, but on condition it doesn’t blindly defend nationalism as it deals with justice and human dignity issues.

He said it was necessary to evaluate the slogan “100 percent Catholic, 100 percent Indonesian,” which Catholic Church officials often point to when the state commits serious human rights violations in Papua.

For Father Baru, if a path is taken with the wrong approach, it will be impossible to have peace in Papua.

"There are only two possibilities: Papuans will die out because they are killed continuously or the armed resistance movement will become stronger," he said.

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